When it comes to the colorful history of the Internet there have been plenty of metaphors from the “Information Superhighway” to “everything is in the cloud”.
While much of the imagery has an ethereal feel to it, when it comes to how information actually moves, look not to the skies, but the seas as today’s high-speed, fiber Internet is based on a vast network of underwater cables.
The first fiber optic cable was strung across the Atlantic Ocean floor in 1988 by AT&T, French Telecom and British Telecom. Since then there have been 400+ more submarine cables put down.
The publication TeleGeography estimated in early 2020 that there were approximately 406 submarine cables being used around the world. The exact number fluctuates as newly installed cables come online and older cables are retired.
TAT-8, the first cable put down in 1988, for example, was decommissioned in 2002.
With more than 100 new submarine cables installed since 2016 there are now about 750,00 miles of fiber optic cables in the underwater network, ranging each in size from 81 miles to 12,427 miles.
Fiber Optics + Submarine Cables = High-Speed Internet
The idea of stringing communication cables under the water is not new as North America and Europe were linked by the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858.
For today’s high-speed Internet to take full flight it took the discovery of fiber optics as a method of moving information at the speed of light.
To get to TAT-8 in 1988, a lot of pioneering work was done, including:
- Indian-born Sikh physicist Narinder Singh Kapany is credited by many as the “Father of Fiber Optics” with his 1960 Scientific American article helping coin the phrase for the method of transmitting information as light pluses via lasers along a strand of optical fiber.
- In the mid-1960s Hong Kong-born electrical engineer and physicist Charles K. Kao advanced the field including demonstrating the need for a purer form of glass to help reduce light loss when transmitting.
- In 1970, a trio of Corning Glass researchers, Donald Keck, Robert Maurer, and Peter Schultz, received patent No. 3,711,262 for the invention of a fiber optic wire that could carry 65,000 times more information than copper wire.
- It is not a coincidence that the year after TAT-8 was installed in 1988, Tim Berners-Lee was able to invent the World Wide Web.
This kicked off an information explosion around the world with TAT-8 reaching capacity in just 18 months after some had predicted the fiber optic cable would be the last cable ever needed across the Atlantic.
How Submarine Cables Work
The individual glass fibers in submarine cables are extremely small, about the size of a human hair, so the cables themselves are roughly the size of a garden hose. Away from the shore, these cables rest openly on the ocean floor. Near the shoreline, they have more protection and are buried.
The cable-laying ships can take up to two years to put down a long cable, some of which weigh more than 10,000 pounds. Cables do get damaged, typically by anchors from fishing boats or other large ships, so countries maintain multiple cables to ensure connectivity when a cable must be repaired.
While telecom providers laid most of the early fiber optic cables, content providers such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft are spurring the installation of new submarine cables to keep up with the exponential growth of the Internet.
Submarine cables are designed to be functional for 25 years, but some can last longer and others are retired earlier as new technology comes online.
It is all about speed as the first fiber optic cable in 1988 transmitted data at 280 Mb, about 15 times the speed of home Internet back then, while the newest cables can transmit at 160 terabits per seconds or 16 million times the speed of today’s home Internet speed.
PS LIGHTWAVE provides high-speed, fiber Internet for public and private commercial entities in the Greater Houston and surrounding areas.
Through our high-quality infrastructure, innovative technology and expert, locally based support, we deliver not only the best in connectivity and reliability but in scalability and redundancy. We invite you to learn more about our services, our history and our dedicated team.